One of Frank Lloyd Wright's most innovative and unusual buildings is under attack.
Nestled in a quiet neighborhood in Arcadia, Phoenix, the David and Gladys Wright house features a circular spiral ramp that mimics the Guggenheim Museum. When construction finished in 1953, critics called it Wright's best work since Fallingwater. According to Neil Levine, a prominent Wright scholar, architects and historians say its one of the 20 most significant Wright buildings.
The home was a gift for Wright's son David and daughter-in-law Gladys, who lived there from 1952 until Gladys passed away in 2008. In 2009, Wright's granddaughters sold the home to a preservationist who pledged to take care of the property. Just three years later, the family reneged on their promise, selling the home to luxury home developer 8081 Meridian for $1.8 million. Immediately, 8081 Meridian secured a lot split permit for the property from the City of Phoenix with the intent to demolish the David Wright house to make room for two luxury homes.
An image of the lot split that was requested by the developer overlayed on an aerial of the site. Courtesy of Alison King
When Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy heard about the demolition plans, they sent an SOS flare to local preservationists. But it was clear early on that saving the home would be an uphill battle. Phoenix, a town built on speculative development and proud of it, does not put much value on preserving its historic buildings. The city has almost no tools to preserve a building once it’s in the hands of an owner who wants to tear it down. Ballot initiative Prop 207, passed in Arizona in 2006, ties the city’s hands even more tightly. This initiative allows property owners to sue the city if it passes any regulations on a property (including historic designation) that could adversely affect its property value.
Since the passing of Prop 207, the City has been more reluctant than ever to pass historic designation status without the owner’s permission, even though permission is not legally required. Though it has still managed to designate individual buildings after securing the owner’s permission, the City has refused to designate any additional historic neighborhoods in fear of getting sued due to Prop 207.
Since the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy cried foul, the saga to save the house has been nothing short of a soap opera. At one point the City of Phoenix mistakenly issued a demolition permit to 8081 Meridian, which it later revoked. But the developers held on to the permit, arguing that with it in hand, they had the legal right to demolish the house. This started a 24/7 vigil of security officers hired by the City of Phoenix and community volunteers to keep watch on the house in case bulldozers were deployed in the dark of night.
On October 1, 8081 Meridian signed an agreement with the City that it would hold off on demolition for thirty days, to give time to find a buyer who would preserve the house.
Much to everyone’s relief, an anonymous buyer stepped forward on October 31. He agreed to pay the asking price ($2.38 million) in cash. But only two weeks later, he backed out. Today, the house is back on the market and still owned by 8081 Meridian, but for a higher price - now $2.515 million.
On December 5, the Phoenix City Council is set to vote on designating the house, which would protect it from demolition for the next three years. This designation will not preserve the house for the long term. But it buys time for a preservation-minded buyer or foundation to purchase it and save it in perpetuity. Three bodies, including the Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission, the Camelback East Village Planning Committee and the Phoenix Planning Commission have all recommended that the house be designated with a landmark status.
But even with those three recommendations, landmark designation is in jeopardy. Phoenix's council has never awarded a historic designation without the owner’s permission. As a result, the city has lost countless historic buildings, including the famous boxing and entertainment venue, Madison Square Garden, built in 1929 in Downtown Phoenix. This cultural and historic Phoenix icon was refused designation because the owner did not consent to it. And just this October the Madison Hotel, built in 1909 in the Warehouse District, was torn down because the City was unwilling to protect the building with historic designation because the owner would not agree to it.
Unless a new preservation-minded buyer is found, the Phoenix City Council will have a difficult decision on their hands. Because the David Wright house is so clearly an architecturally and historically significant landmark, no one on the Phoenix City Council wants to see it torn down. However, because Phoenix is such a private-property rights city, there are a few members of the Phoenix City Council that will find it very hard to vote for designation despite the disapproval of the current owner.
It is moment of reckoning for the City, one that they’ve tried to escape by finding a willing buyer. But with the last buyer backing out it looks like the Council might have to face the question they’ve been avoiding with all their might because they know it will set a precedent for future preservation efforts in the city. They will have to decide - does the preservation of a widely accepted historic and architectural landmark such as the David Wright house trump private property rights?
* Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post misidentified a photo of the Madison hotel.